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Posted: August 6, 2018

What is Fernet?

What do Alfred Pennyworth (Batman’s butler and confidant) and Carmela Soprano have in common? A mutual appreciation for an Amaro (Italian for bitter) called Fernet. An acquired taste for most, this digestif originated in Italy and has been very popular in Argentina and San Francisco for decades. Lately Fernet has experienced a surge in popularity as trendy bars all over the US revive “vintage” spirits.

Fernet was first invented by Bernardino Branca in 1845, and the digestif has been distributed by the Fratelli Branca as Fernet-Branca, still the best-known fernet on the market, ever since.  Fernet-Branca is made from over 25 ingredients and the exact ratios are a secret known only by the president of the company. Fernets are now made by several other distillers, including Maine’s own Liquid Riot. They each have proprietary recipes but most include saffron, cardamom, chamomile, myrrh, gentian root (a familiar taste for Maine’s Moxie fans) and rhubarb.

We talked to Ian Michaud, head distiller at Liquid Riot, to learn more about Fernet and what sets it apart from other Amaro.

MS: What sets Fernet apart from other herbal liqueurs?

Ian: Most herbal liqueurs can trace their roots to some form of Italian Amaro. Amaro is the Italian word for bitter and a liqueur in this category is just that, bitter-sweet and medicinal. Made by macerating herbs, roots, flowers, bark and citrus in alcohol, most Amaro are traditionally consumed neat after dinner as an digestif but modern cocktail trends use them in many different ways as a bittering agent. Fernet is typically on the heavy end of the Amaro bitterness spectrum with sharper flavors and more intense bitterness. Fernet is also usually on the higher end of the alcohol spectrum for Amaro at around 40%.

MS: If someone wanted to try Fernet, but was unfamiliar with the style, where should they start?

Ian: Fernet is a unique style of spirit and can be a bit of an acquired taste. It is very medicinal, bitter and abrasive. Although drinking it straight (either neat or on the rocks) is the traditional way to consume Fernet, this may not be the best way to approach it for a first timer. To introduce Fernet to people for the first time I always recommend taking a small sip of the spirit straight, to get the full effect of the flavors, and then suggest ways to mix it. In South America, especially Argentina, Fernet is very commonly mixed with cola. In fact, Fernet-Cola is so popular in Buenos Aires that many cocktail bars have removed it from their menus to encourage people to order something else! I also like to add Fernet to coffee, it's a great addition to a weekend brunch. Fernet can also be used in place of bitters in many cocktail recipes. For example, try replacing the traditional Angostura bitters in an Old Fashioned with Fernet.

MS: If someone were acquainted with Fernet, but wanted to try something in the category that was a little more adventurous, what should they try?

Ian: Fernet is at the top of the Amaro spectrum as far as alcohol content, bitternes and herbal concentration. For an adventurous drinker who wants to explore herbal liquors further, I would recommend searching out as many different Fernet brands as possible. Fernet Branca is the world leader of Fernet production. Most people who are familiar with this category of spirit tasted Branca first and many people don't realize there are many other brands of Fernet. Branca has very strong medicinal flavors with a heavy dose of menthol. Other brands are less potent and some have a little sweetness to balance the bitterness. For example, here at Liquid Riot we developed our Fernet Michaud to be more mint forward and we sweeten with agave syrup. We feel this makes our Fernet more approachable to a broader range of consumers. Every producer has their own closely guarded recipe, so it is quite interesting to compare and contrast.

Big thank you to Ian for sharing his knowledge! Find Fernet Michaud, Fernet Branca and other spirits from the Amaro family using the links below. We'd love to hear what you think!

 

A photo of a delicious looking adult beverage as seen from above.
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